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COVID-19: ‘Likely Election Postponements In West Africa Have Major Political Risks’

Analysts at the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA) warn that the possible postponement of general elections in some West African countries due to the COVID-19 pandemic could expose them to “major political risks”.

In an article authored by the initiative’s Political Governance Program Associate, Fatou Sy, and Head of Guinea country office, Ibrahima Amadou Niang, the duo observed that gaps in the laws of Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, and Niger, regarding elections, may encourage a descent into tyranny.

“West Africa has experienced exceptional situations, often as a result of conflicts or political crises. However, the path that Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, and Niger are about to follow is fraught with pitfalls as the institutions of democratic governance do not seem adequately prepared,” they said. 

“Can we imagine the threats to the political situations if elections were to be postponed because of the pandemic?” 

Guinea’s ruling party has urged the president, Alpha Conde, who has been in office since 2010, to run for a third term despite constitutional limits. Conde had pushed for a new constitution, passed in March, which has the effect of resetting the term counter to zero.

Relying on 2016 constitutional reforms, Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara has also announced that he is seeking re-election despite having exhausted the two-term limits originally imposed by the law.

OSIWA’s analysts further observed that the Consitution and Electoral Code of Côte d’Ivoire make provisions for the postponement of elections due to unforeseeable circumstances, allowing the president to take exceptional measures.

“There are no specific legal provisions for the postponement of presidential elections due to force majeure in Guinea and Niger,” they added. The latter’s constitution particularly states “in no case may a person serve more than two presidential terms or extend his or her term of office on any grounds whatsoever”.

According to the researcher, the risks that accompany election postponement in the region include possible attempts by the government or opposition to exploit the gap in the laws, as well as a legitimacy crisis and likely outbreak of conflicts. 

“In Côte d’Ivoire, the risk exists notwithstanding the specific provisions relating to the postponement of presidential elections,” they added. 

“It is made worse by the reconfiguration of the Ivorian political landscape in political and social tensions and the manipulation of citizenship and ethnicity. These are all factors that could lead to an electoral process marked by crises and violence.”

They recommended that countries, where the laws are clear on what should be done during exceptional situations, should implement those laws and those where the laws are vague or non-existent should urgently embrace political dialogue.

“In countries like Ghana and Burkina Faso, where presidents are not at the end of their second term, these same challenges could arise,” they said. 

“Without support from ECOWAS and UNOWAS in all these countries, the political dialogue to manage exceptional situations related to the postponement of elections will be unlikely to succeed.”

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